The Butler is an unremarkable biopic about the remarkable life of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), the unschooled young son of a Mississippi cotton picker who was brutalized in the racist South and overcame incredible challenges to become a much-loved butler who served in the White House under eight presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan. His tenure coincided with the civil rights struggles that tore apart the United States during the later 1950s and all through the ‘60s, and the film details everything from the bravery of “freedom riders” driving down to the southern states to register black voters to those shocking scenes of police brutality that appeared on the TV news and horrified the nation.
Plodding and a bit self-consciously inspirational, Butler presents its key historical moments with a shiny, varnished earnestness. And the cavalcade of presidential cameos – Robin Williams as Eisenhower, John Cusack as a slippery Nixon, James Marsden as the glamorous Kennedy – is sometimes distracting (although Jane Fonda has a great deal of fun as Nancy Reagan).
One extended sequence that does have great emotional power cuts back and forth between a student protest at a racially segregated diner in Alabama and preparations for a state dinner at the White House.
As the hatred directed at the polite but determined protesters sitting at the whites-only section gradually intensifies, the camera toggles between diner and ballroom, with sneers and shouting gradually escalating to violence, in between images of gloved hands serenely polishing goldware and arraying rows of plates with fussy perfection.
The film is interesting when it portrays the personal side of Gaines, whose turbulent family life echoes the national struggle.
Apolitical to a fault, Gaines becomes bitterly estranged from his elder son, Louis (David Oyelowo), after he’s radicalized at college and keeps getting arrested as a civil rights protestor. But even the man with a lifelong policy of “going along to get along” eventually mounts his own protest about how black employees at the White House are paid 40 per cent less than whites. These complaints are hypocritically ignored for years, even as presidents Kennedy and Johnson pass legislation enforcing racial equality in terms of voting rights.
Although framed as comic relief, it’s a droll reminder that the personal can be very political indeed.
THE BUTLER ★★½
Directed by Lee Daniels
Starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo
R -132 minutes
Continues at the Odeon and Empire Uni 4
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